Photography how-to

Digital camera lens selection for food photography or... what's the best digital camera lens for digital food photography?

“What is the best photography camera lens for food Photography?” was a post that I recently came across in a popular camera and photography forum.  After reading the various replies, I started to realize that most novice photographers are under the impression that there are “best camera lenses” for photographing particular subject matters.  From my experience as being a professional photographer for the past few decades, I thought I’d add my $.02 to the discussion on the best camera lens for digital food photography.

Tips, tricks, and techniques for digital photographic camera lens selection for food photography

Just as in other types of digital photography, in food photography, one photographer may have his or her “favorite” camera lens for shooting food, but that doesn’t mean it’s the “best” camera lens.   It may just be the lens that photographer started out using, and over time, that photographer became comfortable with its look.  That photographer may conclude that the camera lens she uses is the best lens for photographing food, when in fact, she’s stuck in a rut and wouldn’t even think of using another camera lens out of habit.

Best Camera Lens for Food Photography

The truth is that there is no best camera lens for photographing food, just like there is no best lens for shooting any other type of photography.  Some may disagree with this statement.  They may be under the impression, from their visits to various photography forums and from reading various books on the subject, that there are “perfect” digital camera lenses for subjects like portraiture or aerial photography.  Show me someone that says that there is a perfect lens for a particular subject and I’ll show you a photographer in a rut or one with no imagination.

Digital Photographic Camera Lens Selection

Yes, there may have been times when using that favorite lens has been quite successful.  That camera lens may even have been part for establishing that photographer’s style, but other photographers use different lenses and have different styles.  Neither photographer is using the best camera lens, they are just using the lens that works best for what they are trying to communicate.  One photographer may just like the “look” of that lens and another photographer may have a more practical purpose for their camera lens selection.

If the photographer knows what they are doing, they will select a camera lens because of a combination of factors that pertain the reason for the photograph and to the individual needs of a particular subject matter.  One type of shot or one type of food my lend itself to using one lens over another.  For example, shooting editorial magazine food photography is very different than shooting for food packaging. The differences in the two looks may require the selection of different lenses.  This is just one example of why one lens may be better for another.

There are many reasons that a knowledgeable photographer chooses a particular lens.  Some of these reasons may include:
  • Perspective
  • Weight
  • Maximum aperture
  • Minimum aperture
  • Focus flexibility
  • Relative sharpness
  • Working distance from subject

Lets discuss some of these reasons why a food photographer may select a particular lens as the their “favorite” lens for food photography.

Digital Camera Lens - Perspective in food photography

Some photographers believe that distance from the subject is the only thing that changes when they select a particular lens over another.  The truth is that many things change when one lens is selected over another.  The biggest thing that changes is what I call perspective. A wider lens will create a very different effect that a longer (more telephoto) lens.  Take a look that the illustrations above.  The “crop” of each camera is the outside of the plate on one side and the outside of the spoon on the other.  Notice how much more background is included when using a wide-angle lens.  This means that more props would be required to complete the background composition. When using a telephoto lens, fewer props would be required to give a similar compositional feel to the same picture taken with a normal digital photography camera lens.
Another thing that perspective effects is the relative size increase of a closer object, when compared to an object that is farther away.   With a wide-angle lens, closer objects are emphasized and farther away objects are de-emphasized.  This effect is a tool to be used by the creative photographer.  If you want to emphasize one object in the shot, then maybe a wide angle lens would be a useful tool to use.  On the other extreme, maybe the job requires that you give more equal emphasis to multiple objects.  In that case, maybe a telephoto would be a more logical and useful tool.  You get the idea.

Depth-of-field in digital food photography
Another characteristic of a telephoto lens over a wide-angle lens, is that the focus tends to “fall-off” more quickly.   The effect helps to concentrate more attention on the main subject of the photo.  Again, this is a tool to use in your creativity.  There may be time when more focus is desired.  If that’s the case, then maybe a normal or wide-angel lens would be a better choice.  Camera lenses are tools of creativity.  Use the right tool for the job at hand.

Working distance, in digital food photography

In digital food photography, working distance is something to consider.  A food stylist will sometimes have problems working on a plate when the camera and the subject are too close together.  He or she may not be able to view that plate from the same angle as the camera, making their job quite difficult.  This doesn’t mean that wide lenses should never be used in digital food photography, I’m just saying that it should be taken into account.  

Focus control in food photography

Since we’re talking about camera lenses and not cameras, I’ll not go into my sales pitch regarding the advantages of view cameras over SLR cameras.  Most of the people reading this aren’t in a position to get into buying a view camera, but in my opinion, they’re the way to go.  This is an arguable issue, because many very successful food photographers use 35mm digital cameras.  I’m just not one of them.

I would like to talk for a moment about view camera lenses.  Probably my favorite camera lens for food photography is the 120mm Schneider Super Angulon lens.  I like this lens because it’s designed as a wide-angle lens for an 8x10 film camera.  Since I shoot with a digital back, and not an 8x10, I rarely use the large coverage area that this lens offers, but on occasion, I will make some pretty extreme swings or tilts and I’m glad for that coverage.  Regular view camera lens are usually ok, but it’s nice to have that extra buffer of a wide-angle design to cover my butt when I try to twist that camera into a pretzel.

side view

Here's a sample of how a view camera can control focus. Instead of the focus example above where the focus plane is fixed, the view camera can manipulate the focus so that areas can be selected for being in or out of focus.
Most people think that digital photographers only use the view camera’s movements to get things into focus, where in reality, sometimes keeping things “out” of focus can be just as important as a creative tool.
side view

top view

The focus can be manipulated on both the vertical and the horizontal axis.

Camera lens sharpness at a given magnification, in food photography

Another thing to consider when choosing a camera lens, is its degree of sharpness at a given magnification.  Camera lenses are designed for a given magnification range.  That’s why there are such things as Macro lenses.  Non-macro lenses are not as sharp doing close-ups.  That’s a simple fact.  Some lenses are “ok” doing close-ups but many are not sharp at all.  The only way to really tell just how sharp your camera lenses are at a given magnification, is to test them.

Camera lens sharpness at a given f-stop, in food photography

Sharpness at a given aperture is another factor to consider when selecting a lens.  For example, I have a camera lens that is designed as a close-up lens.  Through experience, I’ve learned that this particular camera lens is not at all sharp when stopped way down.  At f-16, some things are sharp, at f-64, nothing’s sharp.  Your lens may be like this too.  You’ll have to test your camera lens to know for sure.

The importance of relative sharpness of camera lenses in food photography

I’d like to talk for a moment about sharpness.  In my opinion, camera lens sharpness is both a relative thing and an over-emphasized issue.  I say that sharpness is relative because has much to do with viewing size.  Sometimes sharp images are reproduced so small that the sharpness is irrelevant.  (relatively speaking),  For example, I have a client, who shall remain nameless, who likes to shoot in Chicago because this particular photographer still shoots 8x10 film, and they want the very best.  The problem with that is, the client was shooting for a can label!  The image would end up being about 2” x 3”!  And they insist on shooting 8x10.  Boy, those big chromes look good.  And after they get the film back and reduced it down to 2x3, they are going to scan the film and print the label on a web press.  To me, that’s funny! 

So to conclude…  I can definitely say that I do have favorite lenses but I can honestly say that there is no such thing as a best lens.  And that’s all I have to say about that.


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© Michael Ray 2008